Izzy never makes things easy. There's hey, we're getting somewhere and a whole lot of Dude, figure it out! There's rarely anything else. This past two or three weeks have been more of the seriously? kind. Over the weekend I tried yet another strategy to get him focused and listening.
There are three main components that keep Izzy and me out of the show ring: leaning on the bit, tightness in his back, and no stride length in back. These are all mostly the same thing, but over the years, I've been able to get one or two of them fixed, but without all three things working well, we're just not going to be able to show.
For a long time, I fought the heaviness thing. He just would not flex his poll or unlock his jaw. Time and changing bits really helped with that. Then it was his tight back. He was simply unable to stretch over his topline. Patience and a whole lot of long and low have unlocked his back so that now it actually swings - sometimes. Once his back was moving, his stride opened up. For a few minutes last month, we had it all - a poll with flexion, a swinging back, and length of stride.
And then we crashed and burned. Out of nowhere, he has started to once again lean on the bit to the point where I have no steering or brakes. Never one to give up, I tried a new strategy. Rather than focus on getting his back to swing, or engaging his hind end - why do that when he's blasting through my hands?, I focused on suppling his poll and the base of his withers.
I would love to say that getting him to let go of the bit and carry his big noggin himself did the trick, but it didn't. We've spent a couple of weeks working on the idea, but he still thinks the idea is a crappy one. So crappy in fact that he'd rather duke it out with me for an hour and a half rather than carry the bit lightly for 30 minutes.
It's a good thing we both have a pretty good sense of humor.
... metaphorically speaking. We haven't had any measurable rain since maybe March. As our favorite meteorologist put it, "If we do see some precipitation next week, it will mark the second latest start to the rainy season for Bakersfield." So those clouds aren't real.
Since I already had my pity party - many thanks to my ranch owner for being such a good listener and having such a warm shoulder upon which to cry (not really, but she would have if needed), here's the short story: My relaxed, happy, shiny, Big Brown Horse has disappeared, and in his place is a hot mess.
As we all know, I am not a quitter. Sometimes I wish I were; life would be be a lot easier. So instead of throwing in the towel, I texted my trainer and asked what the freaking hell was going on. Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, isn't a quitter either, so on the fly she came up with a game plan to help me find my horse of last month.
Today at lunch marks the beginning of my Thanksgiving break. As I mentioned above, rain is unlikely, so I have a week of nothing to do but ride. Chemaine's plan involves a lot of riding. Think about it like an endurance ride she said.
My world might not be filled with rainbows and unicorns right now, but I can always find a silver lining. I love riding, and now I get to do a lot of it. Wish me luck.
I love Speedy, I really do. That horse has helped me accomplish so many goals. He's even more special considering that he wasn't bred specifically for dressage, but he does it anyway. Despite being amazing, there are still days when he makes me so mad. After Saturday's disaster of a ride, I shot off a text to Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables.
On Sunday morning, after yet another ride with nothing but bolty, head-in-the-air-canters, I simply stopped him, it couldn't even be called a halt, and slid off. His level of try had dropped to zero, and he was nothing but pissed. It would have been hard to say who was more frustrated, him or me.
I sent Chemaine yet another text.
It would seem that being a year-end winner and recipient of tons of awards doesn't mean squat when you move up a level. Have a slice of humble pie, Sweaney, your head was getting too big for your helmet.
Third Level is definitely kicking our butts.
But first, a little bit of a backstory ...
I've had migraines since I was a little kid. As I got older, they got worse like they sometimes do. For the most part, they had been manageable with the right prescription ... until last summer. My insurance plan took my prescription off the "approved list" and substituted it for a less effective generic.
Over the summer, the headaches got worse, so I did some investigating. I got my eyes checked - new glasses were ordered, and I tried a bunch of different migraine medications. None of them worked. About 2 weeks ago, I got a migraine that lasted for 10 days. I missed a number of riding days and lived in excruciating pain. On Wednesday, I saw a neurologist, and on Thursday I had an MRI.
Even in pain that was so severe that I contemplated a lobotomy, all I could wonder was if I'd feel well enough for Sunday's show. The whole yeah my arm is broken, what does that have to with riding? thing. No, I can't see past the ring of fire that is searing my eyeballs, but my horse knows where C is. You get the idea. Once an entry is paid for, I am showing.
Fortunately for me, the neurologist got the pain under control, and by Friday I was feeling closer to normal. On Saturday, a group of us met at the show venue for a Ride-A-Test type clinic with Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables.
If you'll remember, I shared this post about being the local hack. It was written tongue in cheek, of course, but there was definitely an element of truth to it as well. So there I was already feeling way out of my depth, and then on top of that, my brain was so fuzzy that I could barely tell you my name.
Chemaine finished up with her first student and called me in. It had been more than six months since I'd schooled in an actual dressage court, so I really wanted to work on some of the trickier movements from Second Level: the three loop serpentine with simple changes at the center line and the 20-meter counter canter half circles.
I am not going to lie. I cried. I was just so overwhelmed by all that I needed to fix that I felt defeated before I had even heard the judge's bell. My brain just couldn't get the whole left lead, track right thing. I don't know how Chemaine keeps so positive when she's faced with such a pathetic mess.
But. I am not a quitter. I learned that while riding hundred mile endurance rides. You suck it up, you grit your teeth, you get it done. Chemaine finally got me to use my outside rein to balance Speedy, and suddenly, our counter canter was balanced, and our canter to walk to canter transitions were a bit clearer.
The next morning, as I was driving to the show venue, a song by Jarrod Niemann came on the radio. I have an awesome horse in Speedy G, so when I heard the chorus, I knew it was going to be okay.
Girl I got this
Don't got to think too hard
It's a can't miss
I know right where to start
Yeah the only thing I'm needin' is a girl to play the lead
In this cool movie that I'm dreaming up right now
And if you're down with that
I got this
Yeah, I got this
And Speedy? He's definitely got it!
I've owned at least 10 horses over my lifetime, ridden more than that, and even leased another one or two. A few of them were difficult, but they ultimately became excellent riding horses who were very good at their jobs. My last two horses, Sydney the OTTB from New Zealand and Izzy the big brown horse, have been more challenging than any of the others.
Sydney just couldn't make it as a dressage horse, and it wasn't just me who thought so. Several trainers agreed. I gave him to someone who was good at rehoming difficult horses. About once a week, I suffer a crisis of confidence and consider selling Izzy, too. Without fail, he always comes back with a good effort though, and I get sucked back into believing that he and I can become dancing partners.
Last week, he and I had a terrible ride.
From the moment I got to the barn, I had to talk myself into riding. I was tired and not really feeling it, but I convinced myself that some saddle time was just what I needed.
Izzy always meets me at the gate, or at least starts walking toward me. Not that day. I had to go get him. Lately, I've been grooming him in his turnout without the need for a halter. He wants to be with me and enjoys the grooming. Not that day.
When he walked away, I grabbed my halter and brought him back and tied him to the fence. When he reached out to nip me, a game that he sometimes takes too far, I tried to pop him in the nose, but missed. He glared at me, took a moment to formulate a plan, and then sat back hard. When nothing gave, (I usually tie him with my Block Tie Ring), he sat back deeper and really put his back into it.
Eventually, when nothing broke, he jumped back forward and stood in place. I never yelled or reacted. I just stood there watching him. When he was done, I finished grooming him and walked him over to the tack room to saddle up, but I was even more reluctant to ride.
We walked up to the arena, and I got on like always. As we went through our normal warm up, I could feel him getting more and more tense. Gone was the fabulous horse I've been riding over the past month. After trying everything to get him to soften, or yield, or simply recognize that I was up there, I decided that a canter might work out some of the tension.
It did not. We cantered on the right lead, but when I asked for the left lead, he threw a fit. He. Absolutely. Would. Not. Canter. Left. I finally gave up. In the past, when he couldn't or wouldn't bend, my first assumption has been that he needs to see the chiropractor.
That thought frustrated me even more since CC was just here three weeks ago. I am willing to do a lot for my horses, and I do, but twice monthly visits by the chiropractor are just not in the budget. Basically, I threw in the towel, had a pity party, and decided I just don't have enough talent to ride this horse.
As it tends to, a greater power stepped in and kept me out of the saddle for three days. I had some social commitments to take care of and a work meeting cropped up, so before I knew it, it was Friday, which thanks to our nation's veterans, was a day off. I was able to to take Speedy to the vet and ride Izzy early in the afternoon.
Suddenly, my big brown horse was once again on my team. We had a delightful ride, and then followed it up with an even better ride the next day. What changed? Well, probably me for starters, but I also watched some video of Chemaine Hurtado riding last week with Robert Dover during a clinic. I messaged Chemaine and told her to bring Robert's tips with her this next weekend for our clinic. She agreed.
Until next week, I am backing away from the for sale ledge ...
I think the answer is always the same: he's a "young" horse and he can.
Why won't he just relax? See above.
Why won't he soften? See above.
Why won't he do any of the things that I want him to do? See above.
Before you start to worry, I am not mad, upset, frustrated (well, maybe a little), or threatening to sell my big brown horse. Instead, I am trying to find solutions. Knowing why he makes the choices he does helps me understand him better.
I've been doing a lot of thinking the past month or so and have landed on a few "explanations" (for lack of a better word) that seem to put Izzy's life choices in perspective.
First - I think the dude is slow to mature. At eight years old, he still acts an awful lot like a youngster. He's willful, brave one moment and terrified the next, and generally an all around dork. Compared to Speedy, who at one time was all of those things too, it's easy to see the lack of maturity. I've brought along quite a few young horses in my life, but Izzy has been the slowest of the bunch to "grow up."
Second - he's only been working under saddle for about 16 months. While he was started as a 4 year old, he had 60 days with a trainer and than a few months with his first owner. He was then in pasture or a paddock for the next two years. Essentially, Izzy has had to start over. While some horses can go from unbroke to the show ring in just six months, Izzy isn't one of them.
In just under a year and a half, we can now walk, trot, and canter pretty much when and where I want to. I can ride him out in the open without worrying about losing him. He trailers, stands tied to the trailer, and can be counted on not to rip the trailer apart. These are all small things, but I think he's learned a fair amount in a short amount of time. I need to remember that he has had to learn how to be a riding horse AND learn how to be a show pony all at the same time.
I've read some great comments from you all, and I really appreciate it. One comment that I really liked was from a rider whose horse would go through her bag of tricks in the same order. That really hit the nail on the head. Every time that Izzy and I get to a new place, we start all over with the theatrics. It wasn't until I read that comment that I realized that's what's been happening.
Other comments that have helped have been of the "who cares if it takes three years, go at the speed he needs" variety. That's been helpful to hear because it takes some of the pressure off my need to advance yearly.
Barring some unforeseen issue, Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables should be here in town this weekend for lessons. I really need her eyes on the ground and solutions. It feels like Izzy's throttle is simply stuck, and I've been chipping away at the problem, but I'd sure love to hear what she thinks.
With his motor running at such high RPM's Izzy can't get off his forehand and let go of the bit. I've been addressing it, but I am certain that Chemaine will have some new and creative exercises to get him to slow down a bit so that he can lighten his front end and get off my hands.
I always look forward to the weekend, but now I have an even bigger reason to welcome those two days of freedom. And to make it even better, I get Veteran's Day off too!
Izzy has been a complete stinker the past few weeks. I am not completely dense, so I suspected it had something to do with my irregular visits earlier in the month, but I couldn't figure what the deal was.
Day after day, he has gotten worse instead of better. I've done all of the "right" things: after nearly two weeks of not riding, I started out with free play in the arena, lunged him in the sliding side reins, hacked around the neighborhood, galloped in the open field (which he loved), all before I asked for a short ride in the arena.
The short rides have turned out to be an hour because he was so awful that I couldn't find a single good moment in which to stop and say there, that was good. Every afternoon, I left the barn with a for sale ad written in my mind.
So what's he doing? Well, everything except what I want. Fortunately, his bag of tricks is pretty small, but he's pulling them out one by one. The other day he tried his I can't turn/bend to the right. Yesterday, it was all about locking his neck, flinging it into the air, and going mach 10. If it wasn't full speed forward, it was a balk with a humped up back.
I begged. I fumed. I might have even cried a little bit. Then I got the whip out, which I haven't needed in several months, and went to town on him. After 15 minutes with my new best friend, Izzy was willing to turn right and mostly accept the tempo that I asked for.
I put him away without a peppermint or a cookie (it's a petty victory, but it made me feel better), and then I called Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer of Symphony Dressage Stables. I was 100% ready to sell him. I explained my frustrations, and after a pause, she posited that it sounded like Izzy and I are in a power struggle. She continued by explaining that Izzy might be upset over my recent absence.
As soon as she said it, the puzzle pieces fell into place. I know Speedy was bothered by my lack of attention, but he shows it in a different way. He gets very clingy when he's irritated with me. He wants all of my attention, and when he doesn't get it, he nips at me, calls to me, and flips his head in frustration.
Izzy has been pretty insecure on the ground these past few weeks. He has started crowding me, so much so that I've been schooling him on the ground with the dressage whip. He acts like a monster is right behind him wherever I lead him. In the arena, he won't keep his attention on me and does the head swivel while chanting Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!
I think Chemaine is right. Izzy has lost at least some confidence in my leadership ability and has decided that he should be the one in charge. So, I need to remind him that he is the employee, and I am the boss. Since he refuses to check his email and has zero skills at texting, I'm going back to the two tools he does listen to - my whip and spurs.
It's going to be ugly for a little while, but I like having a plan. Chemaine is awesome, and I am glad she was able to talk me down from the ledge. What I need more than anything is to hear stories of the my horse was a jerk for 8 years before he was finally sane variety.
I'll go first ... I HATED Speedy for at least the first 3 years I had him and then tolerated him for the next 3. After 10 years together, I finally adore him.
Now you ...
That sounded so much better than "a whiny moment." I try really hard not to whine as I really am an optimist. I look for the good in a situation first, and I usually find the silver lining. I don't let myself feel victimized, and I don't blame anyone else when life goes awry.
Even so, there are days when things just don't go my way. Yesterday's ride was one of those times. It was so bad that I came home and hugged the crap out of Tobias, our 90 pound black lab. That dog is the most tolerant, long suffering animal on the planet. I sat on the floor, wrapped both arms around his considerable girth, and buried my face in his shoulder. I breathed deeply and felt much of the disappointment and frustration of the day seep slowly from my body .
I don't know what went wrong during the ride. Well that's not exactly true as everything went wrong; Izzy was a ball of unrelenting tension who also thought his ass was on fire. I'm pretty sure he was also hearing voices and seeing dead people. I just don't know why it went so terribly wrong.
It started the moment my butt touched the saddle. I did nothing but walk for the first 15 minutes in an effort to soothe him and get him thinking about me being up there. I should have quit right there, but I proceeded to work for another 30 minutes at the trot thinking going forward might dissipate some of that tension. I half halted every stride but he simply would not or could not soften his body.
When those 45 minutes yielded nothing. I took him on a hack around the neighborhood; 30 minutes later, he was still throwing a temper tantrum. By that point, I knew we had to at least try to end the day with at least one right answer, so I put him to work certain that he would finally take a deep breath and give it up. Nope.
As a last ditch effort, I tried to school a few halts. As soon as I patted his neck and said good b... - he tried to bolt, and not for the first time if the day. Holy cow. When a horse can't even stop (I gave up on a halt) after an hour and a half, it's time to hang it up.
I pulled his saddle in the arena like I usually do and watched as he cantered and trotted along the fence line. When I went to get him a few minutes later, I did some easy ground work - walking at my shoulder and then backing a few steps. I desperately needed him to feel successful about something from the day.
I don't mind a setback, especially if I know what has caused it. In this case, I am baffled. We've had more than a week of fabulous rides. I had a haircut planned for this afternoon, but I've already cancelled it. I really want to get back on him this afternoon and see if we can do a quick see I told you you can do it ride. If he'll give me anything that resembles normal work, I'll call it a day.
And if not, there might be a for sale sign taped to his butt. Horses ... sheesh!
Boy howdy. I think Chemaine opened up a big ol' can of worms when we addressed Izzy's lack of throughness at our last lesson. The last three rides have tested my sticky butt and my patience. At several points during each ride, I gave an exasperated, DUDE!
Rather than just TRY, he has decided to refuse to go forward, bolt forward, rear, kick out at my leg, balk, squeal, or whirl and bolt toward the gate. It took me all the way until last night to figure out where the resistance might be coming from.
Since the naughtiness was so sudden, I chalked it up to nervousness since we did our last two rides in the neighbor's arena. He gets turned out there several times a week, but it was the first time I've ridden him there. I really didn't think it was that big of a deal though.
The refusing to go forward unless it was in a rear got so bad that I got off and grabbed a discarded riding crop. Miraculously, the rearing disappeared completely. But when I next rode in my own arena and he threatened to rear as soon as I asked for a trot, I realized we had a problem.
Before I continue, I should mention that when I first started asking Izzy to do more than just walk or trot on a loose rein, meaning I started increasing the contact, he went through all of this same stuff. Last summer, the balking got so bad I had to really get after him with the whip. When that worked, he tried rearing to get me to quit. More use of the whip and he gave up on that as well. He's just kind of an opinionated jerk who is not afraid to let me know what he thinks.
So when all of the rearing and kicking and balking happened in my own arena, a place where he has been happily working for many months, I knew something had changed. At my last lesson, Chemaine had me address his lack of throughness by straightening Izzy's shoulders to put him on the outside rein. To achieve this, she had me compress his stride with the outside rein, put my inside leg on, and keep his shoulders from popping out with my outside leg. As soon as he softened to the outside rein, I could give a little and ask for more stride.
That sounds fantastically easy, but Izzy has decided that it's hard and different, and he doesn't do hard ... or different. Rather than soften to the outside rein, he's figured that it would be a brilliant idea to just get away from it. Balking would do it. If you don't go forward, you don't have to hold the bit. If you rear, the same thing - no bit. and even better, you might dislodge your rider and then you're home free. Kicking out should cure the whole inside leg on his girth thing, and bolting is an easy go-to when things aren't going your way.
While Izzy doesn't scare me, rearing and bolting, especially when done together, are rather unnerving. Even so, the best solution with this horse is first LOTS of praise for a good try or a correct decision. But when he makes a naughty choice, a solid thwack with the whip on his flank or shoulder or a smack with my hand on his cheek/neck send a clear message.
We finally got to canter last night after 20 minutes of Straighten up, Mister! He never got nice and round over his back at the trot, but he did finally agree to just go forward. Our pace was a snail's crawl, but at least he tolerated the outside rein and agreed to soften to it as long as we just poked along.
But really, that's all I wanted in the fist place. He just figured I wanted the whole shebang on Day 1. Dork. Today is just a turn out day and Thursday we'll try again. I have tentatively scheduled another lesson down in Simi Valley on Saturday, so hopefully Chemaine can convince him that he can do this.
If you're a regular reader of blogs, you probably already follow Megan over at A Enter Spooking. She writes some pretty interesting stuff. A few days ago, she wrote a statistical piece about rides that are outliers (those that fall way outside the average) and how we can tell when an improved ride is the new normal. I would probably be sobbing right now if hadn't read that post.
If you'll remember, Izzy fell with me last Monday. I seemed to have gotten the worst of it as his injuries seemed limited to a scrape on his knee. I gave him two grams of Bute to head off any stiffness, and he looked great the next day. I was pretty beat up, plus I had some work commitments that kept me away from the barn on Thursday, so given how hot it was on Friday, I opted for turnout and figured we could get back to the riding routine over the weekend.
Saturday's ride wasn't anything special, but Izzy was workmanlike, and I felt progress being made. When I hopped up on Sunday, he was fabulous. He went where I pointed with less resistance, was more willing to bend around my inside leg, and the canter work was definitely improved. It even occurred to me that Sunday's ride was probably not a new normal but was instead a better than average ride. I was okay with that as those kind of rides are what improve your normal.
Monday's weather started out hot and sticky like normal, but by the time I headed out to the barn, a small storm was rolling through. Central California's storms are usually quick and mild. Yes, the skies were dark and threatening and there were little gusts of wind, but it actually felt good compared to the weather we had had the week before.
So even though the weather was not ideal, I took it as an opportunity to school my green bean before the real chaos of El Niño strikes. I knew I was (probably) setting myself up for disappointment, but there was always the chance that Izzy would be able to keep it together for the ten minutes I needed. And that's all I was hoping for - a ten minute walk around the arena.
Yeah. No. That didn't happen.
Things started out okay. He stood politely at the mounting block allowing me to get on, and he even walked about a quarter of the way around the arena before he lost it. And that was that.
He spent 25 minutes bronc bucking, rearing, whirling, darting anywhere but forward, grunting, squealing, and planting his feet. No matter what he did, I acted pretty unconcerned about it. I continued to pat his neck, tell him good boy, and ask for a walk.
I finally planted my inside hand on my thigh and simply asked him to walk a small circle forward. He couldn't (wouldn't?) even do that. I finally got off. He took that opportunity to try and jerk away from me in a pretty violent rear. I just stood there until he was finished, and then I went and got a lunge line.
I didn't want him to run or trot on the line. All I wanted him to do was simply walk. For the most part, that's what he did, but then he'd get a wild hair and shoot forward. I simply reeled him back in until he was walking again. After 5 or 6 minutes, I brought him to a halt and just stood there with him. He knew I was there, but he didn't want anything to do with that arena.
The worst part of the day was that he looked a bit off on the right side while on the lunge line. It was hard to tell though since he'd bucked and spun and reared so many times that he probably was a bit stiff and sore. I would be too with muscles as tense as his.
I don't deal well with lameness, but that comes from my many years on the endurance trail. Lameness usually means an endurance horse's career is over. I am getting better at holding off on calling the glue factory thanks to Speedy, but I still freak out a bit when one of my boys is off.
In all likelihood, Izzy is/was probably really tight through his back and hind end which presented itself as a wonky stride. I am pretty sure that if his fall last week had lamed him, I would have seen it during the week while he was playing in the turnout. And I checked - carefully.
Just to be on the safe side, I did give him 2 grams of Bute as I left. I have an after-work, work meeting tonight, so I won't be able to go to the barn which is actually a good thing. He can stand around for another day without me poking at him while his muscles relax.
The last thing about this that I found disappointing was how far back in his training Izzy went when he was tense. He hasn't been this bad to ride since May. This shows me we have a lot farther to go than I thought.
Monday's ride was definitely an outlier, and as much as I don't want to admit it, Sunday's pleasant interlude was too. Talk about highs and lows. We had both extremes in two consecutive days. Here's hoping our next ride is somewhere in the middle.